Fishing limits in Aleutians aim to save Steller sea lions

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Federal authorities have proposed shutting down fishing for cod and mackerel across more than 131,000 square miles in the western Aleutian Islands of Alaska to halt continuing declines in Steller sea lions.

The measure is part of a package of restrictions proposed for a total of more than 350,000 square miles of the West Coast’s most productive fishing grounds that could impact fisheries worth $30 million a year.

A biological opinion released by the National Marine Fisheries Service suggests that clamping down on the harvest of fish that are important parts of the sea lions’ diet may be the only way to halt the decline of the animals, whose numbers have shrunk by 83% since the 1970s. While they are holding steady in some places in Alaska, worrying declines have persisted in the western Aleutians.

The number of adult sea lions in that region dropped 45% from 2000 to 2008, and pup production shrank at a similar rate, prompting federal scientists to try to move quickly.


Fishing organizations have called for more time to study and comment on the proposal, which would take effect at the beginning of 2011. They argue that predation from killer whales, climate shifts and other factors are impairing the marine mammals’ recovery in the North Pacific, and they point out that sea lion numbers across Alaska are fairly stable.

But Doug Mecum, regional supervisor for the National Marine Fisheries Service, said the sea lions can’t head toward recovery until the steep declines in the western Aleutians have been halted.

‘The numbers overall are kind of stable and they’ve even rebounded some. But ‘stability’ is not what the courts have found is adequate under the Endangered Species Act. They need to be recovering,’ Mecum said in an interview. ‘We believe that if it weren’t for this precipitous decline out west, the population would be recovering overall. So we feel compelled to take actions that will turn the situation around.’

Pacific cod fishermen will be allowed to maintain harvest levels elsewhere if they can -- and that is by no means certain -- but analysts said Atka mackerel harvests could see reductions of nearly 40% in their annual harvest of about 65 metric tons as a result of the proposed closures.

Overall, about 4 billion pounds of groundfish are harvested from the Aleutians, the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea each year, including $1 billion worth of pollock. Most pollock fishing occurs outside prime Steller sea lion grounds.

The conservation group Oceana called the draft biological opinion a ‘long overdue’ recognition that current management practices aren’t working, but said it doesn’t go far enough.

Jon Warrenchuk, an ocean scientist with the organization in Juneau, said the new limits will result in a reduction of only 0.7% in the harvest of fish that are food sources for the Steller sea lion.

‘In many ways, we’re worried that moving the fisheries around might not completely address the problem,’ he said. ‘NMFS has determined that the industrial fisheries are still having an impact on the recovery of endangered sea lions. I’m somewhat surprised that this is all they determined that needed to be done, given the declines in the pollock stock and the failure for the [sea lion] population to meet all of the recovery criteria.’

The spokeswoman for the organization representing mackerel fishermen could not be reached. Kenny Down, executive director of the Freezer Longline Coalition, said the group is still studying the 831-page opinion but already has concerns about being forced out of prime cod fishing waters.

‘For the longline fishermen in our group, the effect of losing the historical grounds in the Western Aleutians would be harsh,’ he said. ‘Longliners rely almost exclusively on Pacific cod for their livelihood. The net effect of these management measures on the longline fishermen and their families is worthy of proper public process and scientific peer review before the measures are implemented, and our group will remain active in that process.’

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council will review the draft biological opinion in Anchorage Aug. 16-20.

--Kim Murphy